DATE March 8, 2004 ACCOUNT NUMBER N/A
TIME 12:00 Noon-1:00 PM AUDIENCE N/A
PROGRAM Fresh Air
Interview: Karen Armstrong discusses her life in the convent and
re-entering society in 1969
TERRY GROSS, host:
This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross.
My guest, Karen Armstrong, has become famous for her books about the religions
of the world. She's written about fundamentalism, Islam and the life of the
Buddha. She also wrote the best-seller "A History of God." But before she
became a scholar of religion, she was a nun. She entered the convent as an
idealistic 17-year-old and left seven years later in 1969 after suffering a
mild breakdown feeling she had failed to find God.
The world she entered in 1969 couldn't have been more different from her
cloistered life. While she was in the convent, many of her contemporaries had
formed hippie communes. When she learned restraint in the convent, younger
people were trying to free themselves of inhibitions, including sexual ones.
Armstrong has written a new book about her re-entry into the world called "The
Spiral Staircase." It's a sequel of sorts to her first book, "Through the
Narrow Gate," a memoir about her life in the convent.
It sounds like you entered the convent to find some form of spiritual
transformation and, also, to avoid the things that made you most uncomfortable
as a teen-ager or young woman. Let's start with the things that made you
uncomfortable as a teen-ager that you hoped maybe to avoid by going into the
Ms. KAREN ARMSTRONG (Author, "The Spiral Staircase"): Well, I wasn't a very
successful teen-ager in the 1950s. I looked ridiculous in the fashions: the
sticking-out skirts, the pointed toed shoes, the beehives. I was hopeless
with boys, bookish, very shy in those days. And so I felt I would be socially
inept; that I dreaded the social demands. Also, I looked around at the lives
of women in the late 1950s, early '60s, and I saw them all toiling at washing
and cooking and cleaning, chores that I detest to this day. And the nuns
seemed remarkably unencumbered, and I thought that they were living lives of
real meaning and that they had a sort of radical freedom, as I thought, that I
wanted to have, too.
GROSS: And that sense of real meaning, was that part of the spiritual
transformation you were hoping for?
Ms. ARMSTRONG: Absolutely. I thought that if I could just get above all that
messy incoherence of adolescence, all that confusion and muddle of
17-year-olds and lose myself in this reality that we call God, I would be
transfigured. I could see myself serene, shedding light. I wanted to be
different. I wanted to be changed and not to be this person prey to distress
and silly anxieties but to be dealing with the really important things of
life. And it also seemed to me that if Christianity were true, then this was
so tremendous a fact that only a wholehearted response to the call of Christ
was appropriate, and that, for me in my Catholic girlhood, meant being a nun.
GROSS: Now the convent was not what you expected. Your community was founded
in the 19th century, and you write that, `Customs that made sense when the
convent was founded, when the community was founded, now seemed arbitrary and
unnatural. Practices that had no intrinsic spiritual value but were cultural
relics of the Victorian age had acquired sacred significance.' What are some
of those customs and practices that were very Victorian that you didn't think
really made any sense in the 1960s?
Ms. ARMSTRONG: Well, we were being asked to become Victorian women. Our eyes
were always to be cast down, and I was always getting told off for looking
people boldly in the eye. But I'd always been taught to look people in the
face when you answer them, not sort of cast your head down humbly; always to
laugh in a restrained trill, not to speak too loudly; not to run. But more
important was, I think, the emotional frigidity of our lives. Victorian women
were not supposed to have strong feeling, and yet we were supposed to be iron
ladies of iron self-control. And so I think our life was very cold. We were
not supposed to have friendship. We were never allowed to have conversations
in a two. We always had to wait until a third person came along before we
could talk. We had to give all our love for God, and that often made us
rather cold and forbidding and unkind to one another.
GROSS: And where did obedience figure into your life in the convent?
Ms. ARMSTRONG: Oh, obedience in our order was crucial. We had the rule of
St. Ignatius, who had been a soldier before he turned to the religious life,
and he'd wanted his Jesuits to be soldiers of God. And we, in our own way,
too, had to practice that kind of military obedience. Ours was not to wonder
why; ours was but to do and rabbet our superior as unflinchingly and
immediately as a soldier will obey his commanding officer.
The idea was, during our training, that we were supposed to divest ourselves
of our secular, practical, worldly ways of looking at things and embrace God's
way. And there was one occasion, for example, when my superior told me that I
had to practice at a sewing machine that didn't have a needle, and I sort of
sat there treadling this empty machine for a couple of weeks, telling myself
that this was the best way in which I could be using my time. And the idea
was to make you lose your own will and judgment and rely entirely on the will
and judgment of your superior, who stood in the place of God for you. And so
when we spoke to our superiors, we always knelt down at her feet to remind
ourselves that she wasn't just an ordinary boss or human being. She was God's
GROSS: Was part of the problem that you didn't really respect her very much?
Ms. ARMSTRONG: Oh, no, I did respect them. I was terrified of them. I
really was, and...
GROSS: Well, fear and respect are slightly different.
(Soundbite of laughter)
Ms. ARMSTRONG: That is true, but it would never have occurred to me to think
that these women weren't very intelligent, not until the end. When I went in,
don't forget, I was 17 years old. I was used to being told what to do.
Seventeen-year-olds in 1962 were rather different, perhaps, from teen-agers
today. But by the seven years into the religious life, when I was at Oxford
University and beginning to think for myself, then I think I became quite
arrogant and insufferable in my rebellion against my superiors. I'm sorry for
them, really. I must have been dreadful. But then I did not respect them.
And so that was not kind of me because these women and these nuns, at that
particular point, were going through a painful transformation themselves.
They were facing the fact that their beloved way of life was going to have to
change because the Second Vatican Council insisted that the religious orders
must come up to date. And so they were in a sort of state of transition, with
the old order being removed and yet nothing of equal value had yet appeared
to take its place.
GROSS: Did you feel at war with yourself? Because, on the one hand, I'm sure
you believed that on some level obedience could be a discipline that would
lead to transcendence...
Ms. ARMSTRONG: Yes.
GROSS: ...putting something else above the petty desires and needs of your
personal ego, but at the same time you thought some of the things you were
being asked to obey were pointless and ridiculous.
Ms. ARMSTRONG: Yes. There was constant conflict because--and I really did go
in for it. I really did try. But, of course, the thing is, too, you've got
to realize that we were entirely isolated from the world, so we had no--our
superiors' whims and desires and orders became our whole universe. We didn't
read the newspapers; we knew nothing about what was going on in the world. I
entered a few weeks before the Cuban Missile Crisis, when World War III seemed
about to break out, and they did tell us that we were in this danger of
imminent nuclear war. But then they forgot to tell us that the crisis was
over, and that...
(Soundbite of laughter)
Ms. ARMSTRONG: We had another three weeks of scanning the horizon anxiously
for mushroom clouds, until, finally, one of us had--we weren't ever supposed
to ask for news of the world, and finally one of us said, `What happened about
Cuba?' And they said, `Oh, we forgot to tell you, it's all over.' So we were
so isolated. When I left the convent in 1969, I'd scarcely heard of The
Beatles, and I'd certainly never heard of Vietnam.
GROSS: My guest is Karen Armstrong, a scholar of the world's religions,
including the best-seller "A History of God." Her new memoir, "The Spiral
Staircase," is about re-entering the world after seven years as a nun. We'll
talk more after a break. This is FRESH AIR.
(Soundbite of music)
GROSS: If you're just joining us, my guest is Karen Armstrong, a scholar of
religion who's written several best-selling books, including "A History of
God" and "Islam." Her new book is a memoir about life when she came out of
the convent, and it's also about her life inside the convent. She was there
from 1962 to 1969.
When you were in the convent, you started studying at Oxford University, where
you were taught to think critically and challenge all assumptions. And then
you'd have to go home to the convent, where you were taught to be obedient and
never challenge. And it's impossible to reconcile those two worlds, isn't it?
Ms. ARMSTRONG: Yes, and I was feeling myself continually, in that first year
at Oxford, split apart because part of me was absolutely reveling and
luxuriating in the freedom to read books and read whatever I wanted, knowing
this was my job. It was just intoxicating to me. I loved it. And yet, on
the other hand, there was this deadly weight of disapproval if you sort of
wanted to try out your newly honed critical skills on the nuns at home because
we were supposed still to be obedient. And I wanted to stay. There was no
sense that I was yearning to escape. I was terrified of leaving, quite
terrified. And to leave seemed--even to think of leaving was like reaching a
taboo, it was so monumental and awful a step. But eventually, at the end of
that year, I had a breakdown. It was only a mild breakdown, but it became
quite clear to all of us, my superiors and myself, that I couldn't continue.
GROSS: What were the symptoms of the breakdown?
Ms. ARMSTRONG: Well, I was constantly crying. I cried throughout my whole
religious life like a broken waterspout, I have to say. I just kept bursting
into tears. We were told that if we weren't finding life impossibly
difficult, we weren't trying hard enough. So they must have been delighted
with me because I never stopped crying.
(Soundbite of laughter)
Ms. ARMSTRONG: And I'm not a crier, really, in these days. But I think it
was a great strain. And we were all also convulsed with giggles, too. I
mean, one of us would start giggling at something utterly unremarkable, and
the whole lot of us--it would go like almost a disease, a contagion. We were
on the brink of real strain, I think. In that last year, too, I had fainting
attacks and, also, terrible nosebleeds and vomiting. And then finally I just
collapsed. I was supposed to be serving in the dining hall, and I just passed
out. And I cried and cried and cried and kept on saying, `I can't do it. I
can't do this.'
And they were wonderfully kind to me. They really were. They sort of saw
that something had gone badly wrong. And they wanted to do everything they
could to make me feel that I could take my time about deciding exactly what I
wanted to do without any pressure, and they put no pressure on me to stay,
though said that they would be very sad to lose me. We were all sad at the
GROSS: Well, some of the physical problems that you described--the fainting
spells, the vomiting--some of this was like symptoms of what was later
diagnosed as epilepsy. But at the time...
Ms. ARMSTRONG: Yes.
GROSS: ...no one knew that that's what it was. And so you were diagnosed
with hysteria. It was considered to be a nervous reaction to your life.
Ms. ARMSTRONG: Yes.
GROSS: Do you think, had you known that the problem was epilepsy, that you
might have stayed in the convent?
Ms. ARMSTRONG: No, I wouldn't have stayed because there was--another thing
that was eating away at me corrosively throughout my religious life was that I
was unable to pray, and that is obviously a drawback for a nun. I can now
concentrate on my work for hours at a time without even noticing the time
passing. But as soon as I would go into the convent chapel to begin my
meditation every morning, my mind would just go everywhere. And nobody else
seemed to have these difficulties, and I was waiting to encounter God, and I
never did. And the fact that I could not even keep my mind on my prayer for
more than two minutes at a time meant that my whole--it was a terrible secret
shame I hugged to myself because a nun's commitment is measured by the quality
of her prayer.
And I also harbored secret doubts about, you know, was there a God even? Who
could tell that Jesus had been God and man at the same time? And a nun who
had these kind of doubts could not be going to be a good nun. So there was
this despite--the epilepsy was an added problem; it became a monumental
problem once I'd left the convent. But I don't think that I would have
GROSS: My guest is Karen Armstrong. She's a scholar of religion, and she's
written several best-selling books, including "A History of God" and "Islam."
Her new memoir, "The Spiral Staircase," is about her life in the convent from
1962 to '69 and what life was like for her when she left the convent.
You came back into the world in 1969 at the height of the counterculture.
And, you know, the counterculture was, in part, about losing inhibitions. It
was about sexual freedom. You'd been raised in what you describe as absolute
physical restraint. What were some of the most baffling new things going on
in the world when you got out of the convent in 1969?
Ms. ARMSTRONG: Well, there I was at my Oxford college surrounded by students
who were demonstrating their rage and protest with something called the
establishment or the system and, oh, carried placards and protesting. I mean,
I had been schooled in an institution where young people were subservient and
almost cravenly subservient. And the idea of voicing your disapproval in the
way that these young people were was astonishing to me because in pre-1960s,
we had been--young people were seen and not heard. These young people were
confident. They were clearly sexily involved. And in my days, before I
entered, before the contraceptive pill, sexual intercourse was a tremendously
dangerous and risky enterprise, not to mention a major mortal sin. And this
didn't seem to worry these young people at all. And they all wore these kind
of raggedy clothes or skirts right up to their thighs, and it was a sort of
carnival. And I had no notion what was going on.
And I remember going to my first party and hearing a song and trying to show
an interest and say, `Who are these people?' And everybody gaped at me and
said, `Well, The Beatles, of course.' And I'd never knowingly heard one of
their records, and I thought they were named after those little insects that
crawled around, and all that had to be explained. So while all this carnival
of joyous '60s exuberance was going on, I was looking on bewildered and also
sad because I just felt so appallingly sad about having left the convent and
having to relinquish that old dream and feeling a terrible sense of failure.
GROSS: Well, you must have felt so bad, so lonely, not fitting either into
the world of the convent or into the world outside it.
Ms. ARMSTRONG: Indeed. And I felt that I would never fit into the world. I
didn't see how I could. And then I started having these strange attacks,
which subsequently proved to be epileptic, where I'd be overcome with sheer
dread or an absolute sense of paralyzing terror, almost a hallucinatory
terror. I could almost glimpse somebody standing beside me. Or I'd set off
to go somewhere and find myself ending up somewhere in a completely different
place. And it seemed to me that I was now--I had schooled myself to reject
the world, and now I couldn't get back into it. The world and I were utterly
incompatible, and my mind was splintering under the strain. And I really
feared for my sanity because, well, this epilepsy wasn't diagnosed for another
five or six years.
GROSS: The doctor who did diagnose your epilepsy told you that a lot of
people who become religious have this form of epilepsy. It's temporal lobe
Ms. ARMSTRONG: Yes.
GROSS: Have you looked into that to see what the connection is?
Ms. ARMSTRONG: Yes. I think that epilepsy of the temporal lobe does--it's
the seat, I believe, of the memory and many of the emotions. And so you are
living constantly on the brink of things. Dostoevsky suffered from it, and he
writes about it in his book called "The Idiot." When you're in convulsion,
your mind can sort of explode, and it looks as though you're seeing God. And
I've experienced that once or twice, but I knew this was only--by that time
the epilepsy had been diagnosed, and I knew this was only a neurological
thunderstorm. And the sense of evil and fear and terror I had would easily
have been seen as the devil or a demonic presence. So van Gogh had it, and
I think in some of his landscapes, with those tortured, writhing olive trees
or that brilliantly swirling, menacing, starry sky, you see a world slightly
out of kilter, slightly more intense.
Another thing that people with temporal lobe epilepsy tend to do is to write a
lot. I think of those big, fat volumes of Dostoevsky and van Gogh's letters
to his brothers, and I suppose my own books are--you know, a lot of people
keep diaries or write poems or obsessively chronicle their experience. But in
a prescientific age, some of those experiences could easily have been and
thought to be supernatural.
GROSS: Karen Armstrong's new memoir is called "The Spiral Staircase." She'll
be back in the second half of the show. I'm Terry Gross, and this is FRESH
(Soundbite of music)
GROSS: Coming up, becoming a freelance monotheist. We continue our
conversation with religion scholar Karen Armstrong about re-entering the world
after seven years in the convent.
And critic at large John Powers comments on the Martha Stewart trial, our
fascination with the rich and famous and what it tells us about ourselves.
(Soundbite of music)
GROSS: This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross, back with religion scholar Karen
Armstrong. Her books include the best-sellers "Islam" and "A History of God."
Before studying religion, she tried living the religious life. She entered a
convent as a teen-ager in 1962. After seven years, she decided she wasn't cut
out to be a nun. Her new memoir, "The Spiral Staircase," is about her
re-entry into the world, where she discovered her passion for studying the
religions of the world.
It's interesting; you know, I've been talking to you for several years now on
FRESH AIR and I always think of you as so authoritative and having such a kind
of organized life and reading about your life and the problems that you had
and the failures that you had early on with your dissertation, which for very
complicated reasons wasn't accepted because of the guy who was your--who was
the judge of it. And, you know, you got fired from a teaching job. Things
were just like not working out. And it's understandable that, at the time,
you thought that nothing was ever going to work out for you. And then, of all
things, you started working on a TV documentary series for Channel 4 in
England about religion, and that's where you really learned that religion
scholarship was your calling. And some people might find it really
paradoxical that it was through television that you discovered the importance
of scholarship in your life, religion scholarship.
Ms. ARMSTRONG: Yes, I mean, I'd never thought--by this time I'd--after a few
years of leaving the convent I gave up religion altogether. I wanted nothing
more to do with it. And I--if I saw people reading a religious book on a
train or something I felt quite sort of ill with horror at the thought of all
that awful stuff as I'd dismissed it. But then after a series, as you say, of
career disasters, I ended up in television, and found that I had--that I was
too--I did start making these skeptical television programs. They were--my
first programs were extremely skeptical. And that was very suitable for
London, which is a very secular city. Britain's a very secular country.
People look at religion with disdain.
And I did a documentary series on St. Paul, and yet, at the same time as I was
pointing out the evils of religion and the disorders of religion, which I
chronicled almost--it was almost cathartic for me to get all that off my
chest, and liberating. But also I found myself, much to my astonishment,
being drawn, through my study of St. Paul, to a much great affection for this
pugnacious apostle. And similarly with the other--I began to see that there
had been a lot in my religious background that was--had been very limited. I
encountered for the first time, when I was working in Jerusalem on this
project on St. Paul, Judaism and Islam, about which I knew nothing.
My religious horizons had been wholly Christian. And I began to find that
there were in these other Abrahamic traditions things and elements and visions
and ideals that I could really relate to. And so slowly, slowly--it was
an--by infinitesimal degrees--I began to see that there was more in religion
than I'd imagined and found myself gradually brought back through study,
through television initially, into a religious orbit again, and was beginning
to look increasingly, as the years went by, a little more favorably on it.
GROSS: When you were in the convent, you were thinking that maybe you were
having an actual physical allergic reaction to religion. When you left the
convent, you were very angry at religion. Then you started writing this
series for the TV documentary you were doing and you found that religion
scholarship was just profoundly interesting and even joyful to you. Where are
you now in terms of being a kind of practitioner or believer? You know, would
you use any words like `faithful,' `agnostic,' `atheist,' whatever, to
Ms. ARMSTRONG: Well, I used to call myself a freelance monotheist, because I
studied all three of the monotheistic religions--Judaism, Christianity and
Islam--and could find not--I couldn't see any one of them as superior to any
of the others. I draw nourishment from all three. And I'm enthralled,
indeed, increasingly, by all three at their best. But that's not really--I
can't really say that anymore, because since then I've written about the
Buddha and was absolutely--just delighted by his insights, and that affected
me profoundly, especially his emphasis on compassion and practice. He was so
sensible, the Buddha. But the Buddha was no theist.
And in recent years I've been studying the Hindu tradition and the Chinese
traditions, Confucianism and Taoism, so I would see myself perhaps a bit
eclectic. Sometimes I call myself a convalescent. I'm still sort of
recovering, I think. But the--I--increasingly, I see all these faiths at base
have so much in common. They are all so profoundly related. And that gives
me great heart because you see that your own tradition into which you were
born is not just a lonely idiosyncratic little quest but part of a grand human
quest for meaning and significance over the centuries.
GROSS: So if studying religion is a quest for meaning, and if you see
religion itself as a quest for meaning, do you find yourself believing in the
existence of a god and, if so, what shape does that god have?
Ms. ARMSTRONG: No. I don't--I think belief--sorry to sound evasive, but I
think belief is a red herring. Quite early on in my studies I had the good
fortune to talk to a Jewish scholar friend of mine, Hyme Maccabee(ph) who's
also an author, and he told me the story of Rabbi Hillel, the older
contemporary of Jesus. And Hillel was approached by a group of pagans who
said that they would convert to Judaism if the rabbi would recite the whole of
the Torah while he stood on one leg. And Hillel stood on one leg and said,
`Do not do unto others as you would not have done unto you. That's the Torah.
The rest is commentary. Go and learn it.'
And I said to Hyme, `Well, what did he expect these Pagans to believe?' And
he said, `Oh, easy to see you were brought up Christian.' You know, `We don't
care so much about belief.' But that is--that was a wonderful gift to me,
that moment, because I came to see that the golden rule is the essence of
religion. If you live in that way, you become--putting yourself on the back
burner, looking into your own heart, finding what grieves and pains you and
not inflicting that grief and pain on other people, `Do not do unto
others'--if we did this on a daily, hourly basis, we would be constantly
transcending ourselves, going beyond ourselves, and getting glimpses of a
sacred transcendent reality.
And I suppose I'm with the Buddha, with Confucius, and also with Hillel there
who won't go and just give a great discourse on the nature of the divine or
the sacred or the Tao or Nirvana. The Buddha always said these are improper
questions. He said: Behave in a certain way, live in a certain way, above
all by compassion, and then you will know that this exists. And I myself,
since I've been trying to live like that--and, in fact, it was my study that
helped me to come to this perception--have found a sense of joy and purpose
and enlargement of heart, though I'm by no means on some pinnacle. So I get
intimations of this. For me, the personal god didn't work. It...
GROSS: Wait, wait. When you say `personal god,' do you mean a god you have a
personal relationship with or a god that's embodied in some kind of personhood
that we could name, that has a shape...
Ms. ARMSTRONG: Yes.
GROSS: The latter?
Ms. ARMSTRONG: The latter, but I didn't--but I couldn't have a personal
relationship with God because of all these prayers, all my trying to talk to
him, and I didn't...
Ms. ARMSTRONG: ...get it. I didn't do it. Now that's fine. Other
people--I'm not in the business of dismantling other people's faith. If the
personal god works for you and opens doors, then this is just wonderful and I
applaud it. The test is that it leads you to practical compassion, because
that's what all the world religions tell us. So I think--and after all, God
is--what we call God, what we call the divine or the sacred, is indescribable.
It is--it goes beyond our little theological systems. It is literally
transcendent. It is infinite and cannot therefore be defined, a word that
means `to set limits upon.' We can all only have these glimpses. But we can
know in our hearts a transcendence that changes us and that makes our life
worth living. The Buddhists would say that this transcendence is not
supernatural at all, you see. They'd say it was quite natural to humanity to
have this sense of wonder and awe and fulfillment that takes you beyond the
limitations of your mundane, secular self.
GROSS: My guest is Karen Armstrong, a scholar of the world's religions. She
wrote the best-seller "A History of God." Her new memoir, "The Spiral
Staircase," is about re-entering the world after seven years as a nun. We'll
talk more after a break. This is FRESH AIR.
(Soundbite of music)
GROSS: If you're just joining us, my guest is Karen Armstrong. She's a
scholar of the world's religions. And she has written several best-selling
books, including "A History of God" and "Islam." Her new book is a memoir
about her life in the convent and about leaving the convent after seven years
in 1969 for the larger world. The memoir is called "The Spiral Staircase."
As we record this interview, you have not yet seen Mel Gibson's movie "The
Passion of the Christ," but I know that you've been listening to some
conversations about it. Now you live in London, but you're now in the United
States for the publication of your book. But I'm just wondering, just from
listening to conversations about the movie and the meaning of the movie, if
you could just reflect a little bit about what you feel like you're hearing in
Ms. ARMSTRONG: I'm extremely disturbed by some of the things that I hear.
And I'm told that the flogging of Jesus, for example, goes on for about a good
20 minutes. And it seems to me that there's little to choose between that and
a kind of sadomasochistic film. But I know that people who have told me that
when they've been to see this film, there's a feeling of great reverence in
the theater; that people aren't munching popcorn, that there's a sense of awe
and wonder about it.
I feel, myself, though, that this is what the Buddha would call `unskillful'
religion. And he wouldn't say it was wrong or bad but unskillful in that it's
not very useful because it can embed us in images of suffering and not lead us
on, to transcend it. I think it also misunderstands the spirit of the New
Testament. St. Paul, the first Christian writer, who is the person who
really, in my view, created a religion out of this tragic story of Jesus'
death--he said that even if we did know Christ according to the flesh, that's
not how we know him now; that we're not supposed to get involved in the flesh
of Jesus, in the physicality of Jesus. We're to look beyond now. `That's
over,' says St. Paul, and we now have to live in newness of life using our own
suffering to--joining it with that Christ and moving beyond. I believe the
resurrection only takes about 15 seconds in the Gibson film.
GROSS: How much was the suffering of Christ emphasized in the convent?
Ms. ARMSTRONG: Quite a bit. Quite a bit. And so that's why I wonder about
it. We were always--we even looked at little movies ourselves. They're
rather primitive movies, lantern-slide movies, of the suffering of Christ.
And the message was `I did that.' You know? It was my sins that put you on
the cross. And even as a young child we were told this, and we were told
prayers: `Oh, my Jesus, I am the person who flogged you. I am the
person'--really, this is a heavy trip for an eight-year-old or even an
18-year-old. You know, you dismal, little peccadillos did this. And this
ruined my relationship with Christ. So even to this day I find it difficult
to think of Jesus without a sort of sinking feeling of dread, guilt, shame and
horror at what I apparently did. So I think that--so that's why I wonder
about this film.
I think, too, we're living in a very violent time, a time of horrific
violence, some of it religiously inspired. And these images can lodge in
people's minds and hearts for a long time. And who knows how they might be
expressed in somebody who might not be too mentally stable in future years? I
certainly don't think children should be taken to see this film.
GROSS: Mm-hmm. Did you ever ask yourself, like, if you could redesign the
convent experience, what that experience might be like?
Ms. ARMSTRONG: I think it might be like what I have now, strangely enough,
because I often wryly think to myself that I am still a kind of nun in a way.
I live alone. I've never married. I spend my life writing, thinking,
speaking about God and religion and spirituality, entirely engrossed in this.
And I sometimes think that my early attempt to enter the religious life was an
early stab at the kind of existence that I have now but which wasn't available
for me then.
GROSS: You describe yourself in your book as a `failed heterosexual.'
(Soundbite of laughter)
GROSS: But it sounds like you live an almost monastic life in terms of that.
Is that something that you feel like you've renounced in some way, that you're
Ms. ARMSTRONG: No, I've never been very popular with men, I have to say.
I've got a lot of men friends who love me dearly and I them. But I think that
at the time when people were--when I should have been finding a mate, I was
either struggling with my post-convent trauma or suffering from this
undiagnosed disease, which distorts your perceptions. Freud said that if you
are in pain, if you have toothache, you can't fall in love. And I think that
the pain is so overwhelming that that kind of relationship is impossible. And
I think at the time when I was supposed to be doing all that, when you're
biologically geared up to do all that, I was in too much psychic and physical
Also, I wasn't used to men. And when I first--when I started sort of working
with them, I treated them as if they were ordinary people in my view, as
though they were women, and didn't realize that you had to treat them a bit
differently as a woman, and not--and sort of not tell them `Oh, you can't,
that that's not a good idea.' I remember saying that to one of my directors,
you know, `We can't have that idea. It's not right.' And he said, `All
right. Don't use this idea,' and stormed off in a great sulk. So I didn't
have that knack. I seemed inept at that knack with those winning ways that
men of my generation seemed to like. I think younger men, I think it's
probably a different matter. Also, men my age tend to be a bit big on
control. And I've worked so hard for my freedom that I don't want to have
somebody tell me what to do. But then I ask myself, too, you know, I--well,
I--was I--did I--was I pushed into this solitude or did I jump? Because I
think my solitude is in a sense very much part of my work. I don't think I
could have written so much or be so involved in my work had I got family
obligations. And so I think it might have--my solitude, which I've often
regretted and I've often felt isolated and lonely, but I often think that
perhaps again it was meant, that it had some significance, that I've only just
now perhaps beginning to understand.
GROSS: Well, we're out of time, but I'm just going to ask you--this is a
horrible thing to do--for a yes or no answer on this because we're so out of
time, but do you still feel uncomfortable in the world or do you feel like you
belong in the world now?
Ms. ARMSTRONG: I do belong in the world. But I'm still a bit of an
outsider, not married, writing about religion, living in a country that
doesn't approve of religion. And yet I have sort of--and, yet, too, my work
has brought me not only to the center of my life but also to the center of
people's concerns in this religiously troubled age. So, yes, I do belong to
the world now, more than I ever thought I would. Though I've never entirely
fitted in. I'm still that--bit of that solitary nun.
GROSS: Karen Armstrong, thank you so much for talking with us.
Ms. ARMSTRONG: Thank you. Thank you.
GROSS: Karen Armstrong's new memoir is called "The Spiral Staircase."
Coming up, John Powers returns to FRESH AIR as our critic-at-large, and
considers America's fascination with Martha Stewart.
This is FRESH AIR.
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Commentary: America's fascination with Martha Stewart
TERRY GROSS, host:
John Powers, our former film critic, is returning to FRESH AIR as our
critic-at-large. He'll be looking at the mass media and what cultural trends
tell us about ourselves. Today he considers our fascination with Martha
Stewart. She was convicted Friday on four counts of conspiracy, obstruction
of justice and lying to investigators in connection with selling her shares in
the company ImClone. She'll be sentenced in June.
JOHN POWERS (Critic At Large):
One of the trademark TV shows of our era is "Celebrity Justice," a syndicated
daily program devoted to the legal wrangles of the famous, the well-known and
the scads of half-familiar faces who inhabit the fringes of our minds like
those ghosts in "The Sixth Sense." Here in exorbitantly skimpy detail, you
will learn why Kate Jackson sued her hair company, or how Cameron Diaz dealt
with a man who wanted to blackmail her with topless photos. Of course, the
majority of such stories don't mean anything. They just unleash the envy or
malice that are part of our love-hate relationship with the rich and the
But a handful move beyond mere gossip to tell stories about American life that
go largely unmentioned in political speeches or Sunday morning talk shows,
like the best pop culture that ...(unintelligible) a way of grappling with
personal and social issues that official culture can't, or won't, address.
Take the rise and fall of Martha Stewart. For the legal system, her trial was
about lying about insider trading. But most Americans cared about it because
she's a cultural archetype and a cultural lightning rod. To think about
Martha means dealing with the big social issues that run through her work:
changing ideas of women's roles, fantasies of social class, and the spread of
elite taste in America.
Stewart's biography is something of a capsule history of American womanhood in
the last half century. In 20 years this one-time model went from being a
married Westport caterer to becoming the divorced CEO of a billion-dollar
company. And she did it by aggressively working in realms traditionally
thought of as feminine. In one sense her take-charge cooking and decorating
was an empowering response to the social changes that found more women than
ever going into the workplace, but also left millions feeling that they'd lost
something, the down-home skills that once passed on from mother to daughter.
Stewart helped revise such knowledge, teaching America how to make good things
in an era of ugly prefab vulgarity. Then, having made herself the very
synonym of old-fashioned home comforts, she went corporate. Her landmark deal
with Kmart was a turning point in popularizing the modern American design
culture that you also find in all those Michael Graves wastebaskets sold at
Target. Where CEOs like Jack Welch wanted to own the world, Martha strove to
remake it in line with Utopian ideas of country coziness. And her dreams
touched something deep in millions of Americans, especially American women.
At the same time, though, Martha's vision of the world spawned a profound
ambivalence. I have many women friends who like what she does and admire her
business acumen; yet they can't stand her personality or the idealized
uber-hausfrau she came to represent. I mean, it's one thing to teach your
audience how to make a moist bundt cake, quite another to purvey the image of
the unflappable domestic goddess in an era when most women also have to have
In the beginning, Marthaism was about democratizing the promise of worldly
perfection. We could all have that perfect Thanksgiving. But this promise
took on a spooky new aura once she turned into an infomercial with legs. She
became widely mocked for a bossy brittle control freak persona that hinted at
the very elitist superiority she once promised to overturn. Anna Gasteyer's
lethal "Saturday Night Live" impression portrayed her as a sociopath whose
chosen weapons were pie crusts and Christmas ornaments. In America these days
nobody wants to seem like a toff. Both Senator Kerry and President Bush take
pains to play down their privileged roots. Michael Moore and Bill O'Reilly
never stop telling you about their blue-collar childhoods.
Not so Martha who steadfastly refuses to play the populist. She fashioned an
image for herself of cool aristocratic elegance and she's stuck to it with a
blue-collar toughness you'd expect of one who pointedly escaped her
Polish-American roots as Martha Kostyra. Even telling Barbara Walters of her
fears, her upper lip remains so stiff you could have used it to scrape ice
from a windshield.
All of this made Martha the perfect fall gal for an era of high-profile
corporate malfeasance. People cracked gleeful jokes when the charges were
filed against her. Yet America loves forgiving its mythic figures its
trespasses, and over the course of the trial you could feel sympathies
changing. Martha began to strike the public as a scapegoat, a victim charged
for small crimes in an era of huge ones. The conservative magazine Reason
even dubbed her St. Martha. And the emotional weight of the case so visibly
aged her that although she never once begged for our approval, the experience
humanized her. The cold icon melted back into a flesh and blood woman. Long
before the official jury found her guilty, the public court of celebrity
justice had issued a far gentler verdict.
GROSS: John Powers is the deputy editor of LA Weekly and writes a column for
GROSS: I'm Terry Gross.
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